Shielded from the September sun by her son’s umbrella, 90-year-old Irene Bitsóí described her boarding school experience, using Diné words to underscore painful memories from her days at Carson Indian School. Like other federally run Indian boarding schools throughout the country, Carson’s administration worked hard to eliminate the “native” from enrolled Native American children.
“I was a problem child,” Irene says with quiet pride. “I got in trouble and they sent me to the principal’s office. They said I was a dangerous person.”
Only three months after arriving at school, Irene was asked to leave, so she did; she didn’t want to sacrifice her culture ̶ the practices and beliefs taught to her by her grandparents ̶ in exchange for a westernized “education.” Her story is one of thousands understood by Native Americans and Alaska Natives in North America, including many ancestors of students at Fort Lewis College, which operated as an Indian boarding school until 1910.
“For Fort Lewis College, it is important to acknowledge the reality that we started as a Federal Indian Boarding School,” says FLC President Tom Stritikus. “It’s important to look at the symbols that exist across campus, [including] our most iconic one, the Clocktower, and the three pictures that whitewash the experience of really what was nothing less than cultural genocide.”
These three panels plastered on the southeast pillar of the clocktower have been part of a larger dialogue FLC has been heavily examining for the last few years: how to reconcile FLC’s traumatic history and move toward a more equitable future. Faculty, staff, students, and leadership formed the FLC History Committee to hold space for this discourse with current FLC community members, boarding school survivors, and others interested in the College’s reconciliation efforts.
Orchestrated by Lee Bitsóí, associate vice president of Diversity Affairs at FLC and son of Irene Bitsóí, a ceremony to remove the inaccurate panels was held on Monday, September 6, 2021. A diverse crowd of nearly 1,000 people congregated under a blue sky to hear from tribal elders, campus leaders, and Native American students.
“We gather here under guiding principles around truth, reconciliation, and healing taught to me by my mother,” says Lee. “We must learn from the past, and since the future is unknown, we need to appreciate the present.”
A land acknowledgment was read by current FLC students Denica Tafoya, the 2021 Hozhoni Ambassador who is originally from Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico, and First Attendant Destiny Morgan (Navajo). After the reading, Southern Ute Tribal Council Member Linda K. Baker (History, ’94) provided a blessing. Chairman Melvin J. Baker of the Southern Ute Tribal Council then brought the audience’s attention to the mesa and surrounding mountains, reminding all that only 200 years ago, “Native peoples roamed freely here.”
Navajo Nation staff assistant Adam J. Begaye followed Melvin’s remarks, commenting on behalf of Myron Lizer, vice president of the Navajo Nation, that this ceremony is momentous in a “year of healing” for Indigenous communities. In a solemn step toward healing, the clocktower panels were then removed by Board of Trustees members Adam Red and Ernest House Jr. and Lee Bitsóí, as the Skyhawk Nation Drum Group sang a mourning song.
Led by Head Singer Noah Shadlow, a member of the Osage Nation and a senior at FLC majoring in Educational Studies, drumbeats quickened like a heartbeat as tribal members and audience participants moved with the rhythm. A victory song soon replaced the mourning pulse as chants and whoops were heard rising from the crowd.
For the cleansing ceremony, Irene shared her experiences as a boarding school survivor and was joined by her other son, Darryl Bitsóí, who fanned smoldering cedar in a blessing over tribal elders, leaders, faculty members, the drum circle, and eventually all participants.
“Bless yourselves,” he invites, waving smoke toward the crowd. “Make a connection – all of you – on this beautiful day.”
Ernest House, Jr. (Ute Mountain Ute), whose father ran away from an Indian boarding school, then took the microphone for closing remarks:
"I’ve heard and felt the cries and sorrows of our ancestors. We have carried this dark chapter for many generations. We use this opportunity to educate people about the boarding school era… If we are ever to come close to reconciliation, it’s going to take all of us; this is our shared history. Today, our ancestors see us. We’re here because of them, their tenacity, and their hope for a better tomorrow."
ERNEST HOUSE, JR.
“I’ve heard and felt the cries and sorrows of our ancestors. We have carried this dark chapter for many generations. We use this opportunity to educate people about the boarding school era… If we are ever to come close to reconciliation, it’s going to take all of us; this is our shared history. Today, our ancestors see us. We’re here because of them, their tenacity, and their hope for a better tomorrow.”
The hour-long ritual was capped off with more honor songs from the drum group as a first-year FLC student and jingle dancer from Arizona, Georgia Gray, joined the celebration. Gray’s healing dance entranced onlookers, while her crimson dress bedecked in silver bells flashed in the midday heat. Her moccasined feet moved gracefully as the Fort Lewis College community ushered in a new era.
“And now we break bread,” Lee announced, welcoming the congregation to share a meal of traditional foods prepared and served by FLC chefs and staff. Squashes, beans, corn soup, cornbread, and fruits filled bellies before the Clocktower chimed the prompt that the learning must go on.